Although we have ended our physical Pickin' Up TN tour, the “virtual” tour continues for years to come as we focus on using this website and various social media platforms to continue to spread the word about litter awareness and land stewardship in our state. Hopefully, we've left a legacy of rich content here that can inspire local communities to take charge of their roadside and waterway litter issues and to work together to preserve viewsheds and scenic corridors. There is no shortage of breathtaking beauty in this state, but we can't take it for granted. It is the obligation of every citizen to play a role in keeping Tennessee beautiful and litter-free for present and future generations.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The place to start is home. On our own property, we have to ask ourselves, are we doing everything we can to keep it beautiful and respectful of nature? I personally inspect my front yard every morning when I get the newspaper from my driveway, just to make sure no windswept trash ended up on my yard. Invariably, a piece of tissue paper, a part of a fast food container or a candy wrapper will be found. Usually, these are things that are remnants from trash hauling day that don't make it into the trash truck and blow around the neighborhood. At other times, I'm sure the occasional passer-by will toss things out the window, right onto my lawn. I've seen it happen before, and I'm in a very quiet, out-of-the way Chattanooga suburb.
Beyond picking trash off our own property, are we also doing everything we can to make our homes nature-friendly and integrated with the surrounding environment? Are we landscaping with mostly native plants? The big advantage to doing that is that they are hardier and are lower maintenance because they are optimized for the environment. They are also more inviting to native critters. Exotic plants like Chinese Privet and Kudzu should be removed from your property. Sadly, those plants are taking over the state and crowding out native vegetation. It is a massive ecological disaster in the making and we saw evidence of these plants EVERYWHERE as we journeyed across the state during the tour. It is the responsibility of every homeowner to eradicate those and other exotic plants from their property. You can check out a complete list of invasive plants here that are known to be damaging to Tennessee's ecosystem.
In thinking about water quality in your area, are you avoiding excessive use of fertilizers on your lawn? Too much fertilizer will wash off your yard and go into storm drains which will go right into the nearest body of water. That in turn feeds the problem of aquatic weeds. Excessive nitrogen in Tennessee's lakes and rivers is not a good thing and most of it comes from lawn fertilizers. Have you thought about installing a rain barrel in your yard to use for your gardening and lawn irrigation? Using one of these lowers your water bill and saves freshwater resources.
Lastly, what are you doing to attract native wildlife such as birds and bats to your property? Bats you say? They are the most misunderstood and maligned creatures on the planet. They are actually great friends to humanity in two important ways – they gobble up tons of insects such as mosquitoes, and they are pollinators. I have been a member of Bat Conservation International for many years. They are the leading organization in bat conservation and education. You can buy or build a simple wooden bat house and hang it up in a tree in your backyard or even on the side of your home. Now with whitenose syndrome killing off bats by the millions, they are in dire need of new roosting places free of the infestation. To appreciate bats, it might help to see them in action. Near Chattanooga, there is an incredible cave that hosts thousands of gray bats. It is on TVA-managed property near Nickajack Lake. It is definitely worth a visit at dusk to see the mass flight of bats leaving the cave for dinner time.
There are some excellent resources on-line about creating nature-friendly “backyard habitats” that attract birds, butterflies and other critters. The National Wildlife Federation has a very well-respected backyard habitat program that walks you through all the things you can do to attract wildlife and make your property part of the solution to mitigating the never-ending encroachment of development on wildlife habitat.
Looking beyond our own homes, what are you doing in your neighborhood? Are you sick of seeing trash piling up on a road leading to your neighborhood? Take matters into your own hands and organize a clean-up with your neighbors. Just be sure to follow all safety guidelines such as wearing fluorescent-colored vests and wearing gloves. You might also want to contact the local police or sheriffs department to see if they can send out someone in a patrol car. If it is on a weekend, they might be able to send a volunteer reserve officer. Definitely worth making a phone call to find out. More than once on our tour, I felt very vulnerable picking up trash along busy roads. Often people did not bother to slow down one bit, even massive 18 wheelers. One more tip for organizing your own clean-up: definitely get a hold of some litter-picking tools otherwise you and your volunteers will quickly tire of stooping over.
MY TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS EXPERIENCE
Reflecting on the tour as a parent, I can't say enough how blessed I feel that I have had this special opportunity to share with my wife and children. Being on the road for a month and experiencing new sights and sounds every day works wonders for growing together as a family. Every day was an adventure, challenges and triumphs, and sharing it with loved ones made it so much more gratifying. This trip was obviously much more than a family vacation. I hope that Linda and I have been able to instill a strong work and environmental ethic in Jane and Harlan. They saw firsthand how careless and thoughtless people can easily trash a beautiful place and what hard work it takes to restore its beauty. They also got to meet people from all walks of life from every corner of the state. Venturing outside of our geographic comfort zone is a huge step in growing and maturing and I'm glad that my daughters had this opportunity at such a young age. I've always felt that you never truly grow up until you leave home.
We were fortunate to cross paths with many wonderful people on this tour. I was very inspired by the volunteers and leaders in the various communities who recognized the big picture in the environmental challenges in our state and are fighting the good fight every day. They are the foot soldiers in an ongoing war, fighting the little battles in their communities and making a big difference. Usually underfunded and understaffed, they still march on and get it done and usually with very little recognition. Although they weren't necessarily organizing litter pickups, the musicians were equally inspiring to me. They are not driven by money, but rather by passion. They recognize the gifts they have been given and have devoted their lives to pursuing it. They have taken the time to master their instruments and share their talents with others. Most of them will never get rich or famous, but they are true to their spirits and I admire that.
RV''s AND CAMPING OUT
On a practical note, this adventure taught me a lot about R/V's. I've always loved the concept of Rving and have done it a few times over the years, but this was really the first time in my life that I lived out of an R/V for more than a few days and I absolutely LOVED it and so did Linda and the kids. There are many reasons for this. First, there's something about a confining space that forces people to get along and work out their differences. Its a great form of family therapy. Secondly, having your hotel room with you everywhere you go means you never have to stress about finding a bathroom or a clean place to change clothes when you're traveling. If you're tired you can just pull over and rest. Ditto if you're hungry. There is also an incredible sense of FREEDOM when you're in an R/V. Although our itinerary was tightly scheduled throughout this tour, we did on occasion have to make last minute adjustments and being in an R/V made it very easy and stress-free to adapt to changing priorities. No worries about having to find or cancel a hotel room either. I've learned that a Class C motor home is ideal for a family of four. Prior to commencing the tour, we debated the various options and it really came down to a Class A or a Class C. Class B's are converted vans and really only work for couples. Class A's basically are buses and can be quite large and elaborate and difficult to maneuver in a campground. We decided that a Class A was overkill for us. A Class C is generally smaller and can be easily distinguished because of the sleeping compartment extending over the driver's cab. Our model had a sleeping compartment in the back and a “slide-out” bunk bed compartment that the girls loved. You can learn everything you want to know about R/V's at the Go Rving website. It is an excellent resource if you're contemplating purchasing or renting an R/V. We rented the R/V for the tour, but I'm hoping very much one day that we can afford to buy one and to use it regularly.
We parked our RV virtually ever night at one of our outstanding Tennessee state parks. The parks are a treasure to say the least. By visiting so many of the parks on this tour and staying at their campgrounds, I have been reminded of what an incredible legacy the state park system is for Tennessee residents and visitors. It is very affordable to stay at a state park and the campgrounds are impeccably maintained. You can't beat the quiet and the camaraderie of your fellow campers. Never once did we feel uncomfortable or unsafe in any state park. Being close to nature is also very nourishing for the soul and a very pleasant alternative to staying at a chain hotel on a noisy interstate exit.
It is very hard to sit back and reflect on 20 wonderful days and isolate my favorite experiences on the tour, because every day was unique and enjoyable. But I can say when several factors aligned - it usually made for an above average experience. These factors included a unique situation, favorable weather conditions, peaceful and quiet setting, all family members well-rested, well-fed and in a great mood, and finally natural surroundings that were above normally beautiful. This confluence of factors happened about multiple times on the tour and those will probably form the basis for my memories of this experience for years to come. So what were some of those special moments?
First that comes to mind is floating on Reelfoot Lake at sunset, in the shadow of ancient cypress trees. Visiting the Farm in Summertown was a step back in time to the counterculture movement of the 60's, highlighted by the hike deep into the woods of the Big Swan Headwaters Preserve. In Fall Creek Falls State Park, we listened to the heart-felt and soulful ballads of Roger Neely and Junior Dodson as they sang tributes to their fathers. Earlier that day, we witnessed the heartbreak of abject poverty when helping to remove trash from the front yard of a family that time and society have forgotten. During our journey, we climbed the world's largest tree house and visited one covered bridge, two mills and at least four waterfalls. While not beautiful, it was hard to forget our visit to the Marshall County Recycling Center as we witnessed inmates hard at work to reverse their fortunes and even sat down and had lunch with them. In the mountainous northeastern corner of the state, we spent an afternoon with TV Barnett and the Roan Mountain Moonshiners at the Miller Homestead, tucked away in a beautiful little valley in Roan Mountain State Park and how can I ever forget hanging out in Leonard Anderson's front yard in Jamestown and listening to him sing about "Hard Times." Throw in some stunning scenic drives through Blount, Meigs, Fentress, Morgan, Washington and Greene counties and you have the highlights of our unforgettable month on the road.
I hope the Pickin' Up Tennessee Tour and this blog have entertained and inspired you. Please be a catalyst for change in your own community. It starts with a simple awareness and attitude adjustment. We don't have to accept the status quo. We all have the power to make a difference, even if its just writing a check once a year to charities that support land conservation and environmental education. Take that first step: Love the Land. Lose the Litter.